American Sniper, the new film by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t present the “hard reality” of the war in Iraq, but just attempts to breathe new life into tired old falsehoods and racist tropes.
A hero kills everything in sight to protect his country, but the violence he is forced to commit haunts his conscience. An occupier of a country of which he is deeply ignorant considers himself a victim of the inexplicable attacks committed by the “savages” who surround him. Fanatical Arabs stop at nothing to achieve their goals, including the murder of innocent civilians and soldiers. Skirmishes in a war of civilizations between our soldiers of the enlightenment and the dark forces of Islam.
This is the plot of the Clint Eastood’s film American Sniper, which recounts the life of the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, Chris Kyle, and his experiences during the occupation of Iraq. Although any creative work will naturally use a bit of creative license, the rhetoric of the battle against Arab evil serves to justify military aggressions that are far grislier than any horror flic. As we peel away the layers of myth that shroud American Sniper, we can see that the same falsehoods are used now more than ever.
Revenge against religious terrorism
Sure, American Sniper never comes out and says that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda to destroy the twin towers. But it does everything possible to imply it. From the images of the attack on the U.S. embassies in 1998 to the constant references to Al Qaeda in Iraq, viewers are left with the impression that the 2003 invasion was a response to the attacks of September 11: a justified act of vengeance that would help cleanse the world of Islamic terrorists’ intolerance and hatred.
Good Americans and evil Arabs
Cline Eastwood may be a flaming right-winger, but he’s still a first-class filmmaker. We identify with the soldiers in American Sniper because they’re just like us: they sweat, love, fear, laugh, and have families. We’re moved by their very real suffering when they come home to face civilian life with their physical handicaps and post-traumatic stress.
The faceless Arab combatants, in contrast, skulk in the shadows. As Kyle tells us, these “savages” kill out of pure “evil”. When a child wanders across a dead man and his rocket-launcher, he doesn’t even cry; his violent spirit leads him to attempt to lift the weapon in order to kill more soldiers. The civilians, on the other hand, are scheming and greedy; at most, they’re two-dimensional victims of soulless Arab fighters.
The duplicitous Arabs confronted by Kyle even use their religion to deceive our heroes, like when a man invites the troops to share his family’s Eid al-Adha dinner so they won’t find his weapons stash. Or in another scene, when two military bureaucrats give the “legend” a dressing down because the widow of one of his targets complained that the victim was carrying a Koran; Kyle replies that what he had was an AK-47.
Ethical soldiers and just war
The main character of American Sniper only kills to protect his buddies and his country. When he kills a boy carrying an explosive device, he feels distressed and indignant at the “evil” that forced him to murder an innocent child. Unlike the terrorists, who even wield drills against civilians, Kyle always acts within the law: he warns an Iraqi man that he’ll be turned over to the “Iraqi courts” if he doesn’t cooperate.
American Sniper: the “hard reality” of the war in Iraq?
How about a reality check: Saddam Hussein was a secular despot who never cooperated with Al Qaeda; the group only showed up in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. On the other hand, the racist and dehumanizing depictions of Arabs in films like American Sniper are as dangerous as they’re false: they’ve helped garner support for military interventions in the middle east, as well as fostering repeated attacks on Muslims and mosques in Europe and the United States.
In terms of the ethical sniper, the real Chris Kyle didn’t lose much sleep over taking hundreds of human lives. In his autobiography, he declares that “I only wish I had killed more. I loved what I did … It was fun.” He also described the rules of engagement as “If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see.”
His buddies in the invading army weren’t exactly paragons of moral conduct, either. Like Kyle, U.S. authorities in Iraq systematically turned over detainees to “the Iraqi courts” to be tortured, knowing full well how they would be treated. What’s more, snipers – Chris Kyle among them – played a key role in the bloody siege of the city of Fallujah in 2004, which left at least 600 dead. Journalists reported that U.S. snipers deployed during the siege shot at containers with food and water, ambulance drivers and medical personnel, civilians hiding inside their homes, and “anyone who goes ahead in the street.”
Beyond the crimes committed by individual soldiers, these atrocities were part of a war policy designed in Washington, from the torture in Abu Ghraib to the indiscriminate use of white phosphorous. The human consequences of their intervention in Iraq are enormous: more than 1.2 million dead, more than 3.5 million displaced persons, and an infrastructure devastated by the invasion and the subsequent neoliberal “reforms”.
The same lies, still at play in Palestine
The lies behind American Sniper go far beyond Iraqui history. They’re part of the obligatory playbook for western military interventions in the middle east, and their use is especially visible and noxious in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The same racist values reflected in American Sniper led to an outcry over the deaths of three Israeli teens in 2014, while western governments did nothing to stop the Israeli murder of more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, including 578 children. Some lives, it seems, are worth more than others. At the same time, inside of Israel racism is becoming more and more open and accepted. Palestinian citizens of Israel enjoy fewer legal rights than Jewish citizens; in recent incidents, mobs have paraded through the streets shouting “slaves” at African refugees; and according to a 2007 study, more than two thirds of Israeli teens believe that Arabs are “less intelligent, uncultured and violent.”
While U.S. forces in Iraq proclaimed their commitment to human rights, today the Israeli army declares itself to be the “most moral army in the world.” Similarly to Kyle’s anguish at killing the child, the founder of the State of Israel Golda Meir claimed that “we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” Likewise, during the attack on Gaza in 2014, prime minister Netanyahu condemned Hamas for forcing the Israelis to kill civilians.
In reality, the Israeli army systematically and deliberately commits the same kind of abuses as their earlier counterparts in Iraq. To give just one example, in the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2014, the missiles fired from the drones of the company Elbit Systems (the largest military contractor in Colombia) destroyed homes with entire families inside. And on the ground, snipers, Chris Kyle’s counterparts, murdered civilians while they fled among the rubble (see video).
Chris Kyle and his fellow soldiers were part of an army of occupation, just like the soldiers who today shoot civilians in Gaza or control their movement at West Bank checkpoints. In spite of all the action and special effects in films like American Sniper, and despite the Hasbara propaganda produced by Israel, there’s no way to hide that reality.